The Extractionist, Kimberly Unger (Tachyon 978-1-61696-376-7, $17.95, 290pp, tp) July 2022.
When Eliza McKay is contracted by a shadowy government agency, all of her instincts scream this job will be like no other, and, in Kimberly Unger’s latest novel, The Extractionist, we quickly learn McKay is spot on. McKay is the titular extractionist, a freelance super-hacker who specializes in rescuing people stuck in the “Swim,” a fully immersive virtual reality – and while she is the best, she rarely gets tapped to do more than discreetly pull rich folks out of embarrassing snafus in porn worlds or in over their heads in online casinos.
McKay used to be at the forefront of the tech she now exploits. A former grad student designing systems in and for the Swim, McKay now ekes together a living on the fringe. She’s smart, and also possesses an extremely customized and unregulated computer system in her head, one in which the ‘‘Overlay,’’ a constant stream of data from the web and the Swim, is available to her at all times, as well as an army of mites, sprites, and artificial intelligences – particularly one charmingly self-evolved program named Spike – that can access data on her behalf at a moment’s notice.
Few people, even other professionals, are as literally plugged in as she is, and fewer have as much knowledge and love of the technology. So, when Mike Miyamoto, an agent investigating misuse of technology, gets stuck in the Swim during a covert operation, the agency, Vector7, can’t just use anyone to try and extract him. They need someone with the equipment and the chops to not only pull Mike out in one piece, but to transfer his ‘‘persona,’’ a digital copy of his personality, from the Swim back into the real world. Without a copy of this persona, Mike won’t be able to remember anything that happened to him while he was in the Swim.
It’s a short list of candidates, with McKay at the top.
Though she doesn’t want to take the job, McKay needs the money. She’s also insatiably curious, loves a challenge, and, in her heart, wants to do a favor for any agency that could help her restore her legal permits to design again.
As soon as she takes the gig, the clock starts. McKay has to race against time. The longer someone is in the Swim, the harder it is to extract them. Additionally, Mike himself has refused the extractionists Vector7 sent in before McKay, for some reason; there are competing agents and interests who will kill to stop McKay or find out what she knows; and traps are rife both in the world and in the Swim.
The Extractionist is a plot-driven book. And the plot moves fast, careening quickly from cyberpunk onto thriller highway. Danger doesn’t lurk; it chases McKay, from Singapore to her native San Francisco. There are brutes with guns, home invasions by tank-like hackers with the processing power of a hundred computers, corporate saboteurs and kidnappers, swarms of malware bots, electromagnetic pulse blasts, elaborate ruses, double agents. McKay and Mike are safe in neither the real world nor the Swim, and Unger keeps up the frenetic pace until the very end. It gets to be a bit exhausting to read: it’s hard to put down, but equally as hard to keep up with everything that’s happening.
While the plot’s tempo – and tightly woven intricacies – are a wonder to behold, and, yes, quite thrilling, as a reader, I would have liked to be able to spend some more time inside the Swim. Unger has an impressive resume in game and virtual reality design, and has drawn deeply on her expertise to construct a compelling version of what this “metaverse” could look like (it’s certainly more interesting than the one that currently exists). She has done a marvelous job suggesting, through sensory details and McKay’s perceptions, what the Swim feels like, but the plot comes so furiously fast that there’s no time for us to really look around and get oriented. Instead it’s overwhelming and overstimulating, and while I’m willing to speculate that’s done by design, it still feels like a lost opportunity for those readers more keen on the cyberpunk than the thriller.
The pace also does McKay a disservice. Having a bright, talented, capable, street-savvy, female-identified protagonist in a tech-heavy thriller is, itself, a thrill. Unger forces McKay to behave like a machine – and I don’t mean in the cool, cyberpunk-trope way. I mean, McKay gets little time to think or plan, much less eat or sleep. She’s constantly reacting to whatever is thrown at her, and so we also never get to understand much about what she is actually about. There’s tantalizing hints: she comes from a well-known family, had a pretty successful career, was an astounding student, made all kinds of connections, both legitimate and unsavory. She is someone I enjoyed spending time with. I only wish I’d been able to do more than chase behind her.
Caren Gussoff Sumption is a writer, editor, Tarot reader, and reseller living outside Seattle, WA with her husband, the artist and data scientist, Chris Sumption, and their ridiculously spoiled cat-children.
Born in New York, she attended the University of Colorado, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Clarion West (as the Carl Brandon Society’s Octavia Butler scholar) and the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop. Caren is also a Hedgebrook alum (2010, 2016). She started writing fiction and teaching professionally in 2000, with the publication of her first novel, Homecoming.
Caren is a big, fat feminist killjoy of Jewish and Romany heritages. She loves serial commas, quadruple espressos, knitting, the new golden age of television, and over-analyzing things. Her turn offs include ear infections, black mold, and raisins in oatmeal cookies.
This review and more like it in the August 2022 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.
©Locus Magazine. Copyrighted material may not be republished without permission of LSFF.